(AP Photo/Discovery Channel/LMNO Productions)
MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. - Searchers found the wreckage of Steve Fossett's plane in California's rugged Sierra Nevada just over a year after the millionaire adventurer vanished on a solo flight, and the craft appears to have hit the mountainside head-on, authorities said Thursday.
Most of the plane's fuselage disintegrated on impact, and the engine was found several hundred feet away at an elevation of 9,700 feet, authorities said.
"It was a hard-impact crash, and he would've died instantly," said Jeff Page, emergency management coordinator for Lyon County, Nev., who assisted the search.
Crews conducting an aerial search late Wednesday spotted what turned out to be the wreckage in the Inyo National Forest near the town of Mammoth Lakes, Sheriff John Anderson said. They confirmed around 11 p.m. that the tail number found matched Fossett's single-engine Bellanca plane, he said.
Anderson said no human remains were found in the wreckage.
"It's quite often if you don't find remains within a few days, because of animals, you'll find nothing at all," Anderson said.
Teams led by the sheriff's department would continue the search for remains Thursday, while the National Transportation Safety Board was en route to probe the cause of the crash, he said.
Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the NTSB, said the agency has reviewed photographs of the site and after a preliminary look, "it appears to be consistent with a nonsurvivable accident." He also said it was "indicative of a high-impact crash."
The NTSB would bring in a private contractor to help with recovery of the airplane, Rosenker said. "It will take weeks, perhaps months, to get a better understanding of what happened," he said.
Fossett, 63, disappeared on Sept. 3, 2007, after taking off in a plane he borrowed from a Nevada ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton. A judge declared Fossett legally dead in February following a search for the famed aviator that covered 20,000 square miles.
Searchers began combing the rugged terrain on Wednesday, two days after a hiker found Fossett's identification. The wreckage was found about a quarter-mile from where hiker Preston Morrow made his discovery Monday.
The IDs provided the first possible clue about Fossett's whereabouts since he vanished.
"I remember the day he crashed, there were large thunderheads over the peaks around us," Mono County Undersheriff Ralph Obenberger said, gesturing to the mountains flanking Mammoth Lakes.
Aviators had previously flown over Mammoth Lakes, about 90 miles south of the ranch, in the search for Fossett, but it had not been considered a likely place to find the plane.
The most intense searching was concentrated north of the town, given what searchers knew about sightings of Fossett's plane, his plans for when he had intended to return and the amount of fuel he had in the plane.
A judge declared Fossett, 63 when he disappeared, legally dead in February following a search for the famed aviator that covered 20,000 square miles.
Fossett made a fortune trading futures and options on Chicago markets. He gained worldwide fame for more than 100 attempts and successes in setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July 2007.
He also swam the English Channel, completed an Ironman Triathlon, competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and climbed some of the world's best-known peaks, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.